Study Links Poor Nutrition to Accelerated Alzheimer’s Progression

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Findings highlight nutrition’s role in Alzheimer’s progression, suggests dietary interventions may slow decline.

A new study has uncovered a significant link between nutritional status and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that people with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have significantly poorer nutrition than those without Alzheimer’s and that nutritional status worsens as Alzheimer’s disease progresses.

The study, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Nutrition, aimed to investigate the relationship between the nutritional status of Alzheimer’s patients and the progression of their disease. Researchers examined a total of 266 participants, with 73 having normal cognition, 72 having mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s, and 121 having dementia due to Alzheimer’s. Several factors were analyzed, including each participant’s body composition, dietary patterns, nutritional status, and nutrition-related laboratory results. The analysis determined that the participants with Alzheimer’s disease had significantly worse nutrition compared to the participants with normal cognition. The researchers also found that a person’s nutritional status tends to worsen further as Alzheimer’s disease progresses.

Study Findings Explained

The researchers found that certain personal factors made the participants more susceptible to poor nutrition. In particular, lower BMI, smaller calf and hip circumference, lower scores on a nutritional risk index, and lower levels of proteins were all associated with Alzheimer’s disease progression. According to the researchers, the most accurate predictor of Alzheimer’s was a combination of the levels of total protein and albumin in the blood, as well as the participant’s calf circumference.

“In this study, those with Alzheimer’s disease were significantly more likely to suffer from signs of malnutrition than those with normal cognition. Other research has found similar results, with up to 32% of those with dementia being malnourished and 47% at risk for malnutrition,” Laura Ali tells The Epoch Times. Ms. Ali is a registered dietician, culinary nutritionist, and author of the book MIND Diet for Two.
All participants were analyzed based on their adherence to either the Mediterranean diet or the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. Although there was no statistically significant difference in dietary patterns for the three participant groups, overall nutrition scores were slightly lower for the dementia group.

Why Does Alzheimer’s Make Malnutrition Worse?

Malnutrition is the most common nutrition-related issue people with Alzheimer’s face.

“It’s important to note that malnutrition is quite common in dementia and that the dementia itself may lead to poor nutrition. In many cases it may be difficult to tease out whether malnutrition is a cause or effect of dementia. Given that dementia usually affects an older population, other causes of malnutrition may also be present,” Leon Barkodar, MD tells The Epoch Times. Dr. Barkodar is a double-board certified neurologist at Neurology Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California.

There are many factors that lead to malnutrition in Alzheimer’s patients and many of them are directly related to how the patients’ ability to process and enjoy food changes over time. For example, many people with Alzheimer’s experience decreased appetite, difficulty chewing and swallowing, or altered taste and smell. They may also forget to eat, have difficulty preparing their own meals, or experience behavioral symptoms such as agitation which make eating more difficult.

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”Some people may be taking multiple medications which can change the way food tastes, further complicating the issue,” adds Ms. Ali.

“We commonly see dementia patients whose nutritional status affects their clinical course,” confirms Dr. Barkodar.

How Good Nutrition Can Strengthen Cognition

Cognitive health involves many factors, including thinking, learning, memory, motor function, and emotional regulation. All of these aspects of cognition can be directly impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.

In general, healthy eating habits have long been associated with cognitive benefits. Research also suggests that micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, in particular can have a significant impact on a person’s cognitive health.

“When there is concern for dementia, most neurologists will also check for vitamin/nutritional deficiencies such as B12 levels and folic acid levels further highlighting a nutritional component,” explains Dr. Barkodar. “Some recent studies have also shown that a daily multivitamin may be helpful in reducing the risk of dementia.”

“Following a healthy diet, rich in fruits and veggies, whole grains, seafood and other lean protein sources like legumes, nuts, and seeds has been shown to help reduce the risk of dementia. While the specific mechanisms are not well understood, it is suspected that these foods are full of nutrients that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and help keep our blood vessels clear from plaque buildup,” explains Ms. Ali.

Adherence to specific diets–particularly the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet–has been the focus of many studies surrounding Alzheimer’s disease, with mixed results. While some studies suggest that adherence to these diets can have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s, other studies have reported no protective effects. Still, it appears that many nutritionists, including Ms. Ali, still encourage patients who are suffering from Alzheimer’s to follow the MIND diet.

“The MIND diet has been extensively studied and it has been found that those who follow the diet have a significantly slower rate of cognitive decline,” says Ms. Ali. “The diet is a fairly flexible eating plan that focuses on increasing foods that have a positive impact on brain health. It recommends including berries, leafy greens, whole grains, seafood, legumes, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. It also recommends limiting the amount of foods high in saturated fat, fried foods, and sweets.”

One notable limitation of the study was that the researchers did not note which specific foods within the parameters of either the Mediterranean or MIND diets participants ate in order to achieve their rankings. Future research which tracks participant’s food intake more specifically may be helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of how nutrition affects Alzheimer’s disease over time.

Regardless, it seems clear that early nutritional intervention is the key to reducing the negative effects of malnutrition for Alzheimer’s patients.

“Malnutrition can lead to reduced muscle mass, brittle bones, and reduced immunity. This increases a person’s risk of falls, broken bones, infections, and slow wound healing. Some research suggests that malnutrition in people with dementia may increase some behavioral issues associated with dementia. All of these issues can lead to prolonged hospitalizations and for some, increased mortality,” explains Ms. Ali. “Identifying individuals with early signs of malnutrition can help prevent further physical decline and lengthy hospitalizations, and improve their quality of life.”

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